The soil at our farm in western Massachusetts is full of stones. We spend hours digging and sifting new garden beds each year to prevent crooked carrots and stunted radishes.
A few years ago, I started collecting the stones we removed from our garden and painting them as teaching tools. At the time, I was running a mixed-age after-school program for K-6th graders. Children loved using the painted stones as inspiration for stories, and they’d collect their own stones from the playground to paint new images on.
This inspired me to create what I call “Story Stone” sets the children could use to share their stories and creativity. A set included about 15 stones painted with different images on both front and back. I chose open-ended images that allowed kids to take their stories in many different directions. My Story Stone sets were a huge hit in the classroom. You could also make themed sets, such as fairy tales, farm animals, or vehicles.
To make the children in your life a set of Story Stones, begin by washing and scrubbing scavenged stones at an outdoor sink to remove all dirt. Any dirt or grit left on the stone’s surface will cause paint to chip off.
Paint the stones with outdoor acrylic paints from the local craft store. These acrylics will dry quickly and they’re durable, because they’re intended for outdoor use on clay flowerpots. I paint with fine brushes, and I use toothpicks for detail work. To prevent chipping, wait until the acrylic has thoroughly dried, and then coat the stones with clear nail polish. Other types of clear varnish will work as well.
Only collect your story stones from personal garden beds or driveways, not from waterways or parks. Rocks and stones prevent erosion, help decrease flooding, and provide habitat for many small creatures.
Storytelling is a powerful way for children (and adults!) to be creative, express emotions, and work on problem-solving. Storytelling gives kids an opportunity to learn new vocabulary, talk about real events, or use their imagination. Story Stones are also great for kids who are learning to read and write.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Nattawut Ngernsanthia
Prolific Khaki Campbells
I recommend the Khaki Campbell duck breed to readers. Only a few of them are needed for a constant supply of eggs and meat; I’ve found them to lay more eggs than the average chicken. I once kept only two of them, and got at least one egg a day, often two, and meat of excellent quality. They have good foraging instincts and like to be let out to search for slugs, snails, worms, and weeds in the garden. Their tame, pleasant character makes them return to their pen afterward. Like all ducks, Khaki Campbells love and need water, so it’s best to build a small pond for them, although I let mine enjoy a plastic kiddie pool. These energetic ducks need plenty of space to move around.
As I’ve learned, the Khaki Campbell was bred by Adele Campbell in the 1800s in Britain. She wanted an attractive duck to supply both eggs and meat for her small farm. She began by crossing a good laying Indian Runner duck with a Rouen to develop fine qualities for meat. The Khaki Campbell may be the best duck breed for small farms.
Brooklyn, New York
Turn Over a New Leaf
If your homegrown cauliflower heads are yellow instead of white, here’s a trick that works for me. When the baby head is about the size of a silver dollar, break off one of the outer leaves and lay it over the cauliflower head so the sun won’t bake it. You might have to replace the leaf often, because the sun will dry it out and it’ll crumble away. You can also pull all the plant’s leaves up over the head and secure them in place with a rubber band.
Cedar City, Utah
Here are a few ways I like to recycle and repurpose items from thrift stores.
I weave old canning jar rings on paracord to make fencing. When I found a box of computer cable at a thrift store, I wove it into a trellis for my raised garden beds.
I frequently find stacks of square wire storage modules at thrift stores. They’re usually missing the connectors. I clip the modules together with hog rings to make a fence. And, finally, I use old ironing boards I find at thrift stores to make gates around my property.
Martha Ann Burgard
A Little Elbow Grease
The outdoor sensor on our indoor-outdoor thermometer just didn’t want to work anymore, even with new batteries. The electrical contacts had corroded, so I cleaned them up with sandpaper. I also scrubbed the battery contact springs with baking soda and a toothbrush. The outdoor sensor worked again, but only for several months.
Then, I got the bright idea to rub on electrical grease to stop the corrosion by protecting the contacts from moisture and oxygen. I also hoped to improve the connection by giving the electricity a path to travel over the top of the corrosion. Bingo! Problem solved.
A Spin on the Salad Spinner Fix
Like Tony Taylor, (“A ‘Berry’ Fine Fix,” Country Lore, April/May 2019), I also wash and then spin my berries in a salad spinner before freezing them. After spinning, I lay them slightly apart on cookie sheets in the freezer until they’re frozen, and then I put them in freezer bags; this extra step helps keep them from clumping together.
I also freeze extra grape and cherry tomatoes in this manner. I later use these in slow cooker recipes for chuck roasts, chili, tomato-based soups, and the like.
I also like to cut up defrosted grape and cherry tomatoes, spin them in my salad spinner to remove excess seeds and moisture, and then bake them in homemade macaroni and cheese for a burst of homegrown flavor.
Middle River, Maryland
Chick + Weed = Compost
After I’m finished weeding my garden, I throw the weeds inside my chicken run. I’ll also add dry leaves from my yard for carbon to balance out the nitrogen. The chickens eat the dandelion greens, purslane, clover, and chickweed (no pun intended). Occasionally, I’ll toss some food scraps and scratch grains into the weed pile, and this encourages the chickens to till it up even more.
When combined with the chickens’ high-nitrogen manure, the weeds and leaves quickly turn into a nice soil amendment for my garden. And the weeds don’t grow back like they used to when I’d toss them onto the garden paths or in the fence row.
Dryfork, West Virginia
I have a simple solution if you want to hang a heavy object but don’t have a stud, and you don’t want to drill a large hole for a wall anchor. Just drive in the nail you intend to use, pull the nail out, squeeze in a quality adhesive, replace the nail, and allow it to cure for the recommended time. The adhesive will bond to the drywall on the inside of the nail hole, and bubble out the back side, like any toggle or butterfly anchor would. When the adhesive is fully cured, you’ll have a hanger that’ll hold until you decide to remove it.
I’ve had yuca fries in San Francisco Bay Area restaurants and loved them, but at first, I didn’t realize the cooks meant yuca (Manihot esculenta, pronounced YOO-ca), not yucca (Yucca elata). So, I researched them online and I found pictures of this vegetable, which I’d seen before in Central Valley grocery stores, but had never identified. The yuca root, also known as “cassava,” tastes much like a potato and has similar nutritional value. You’ll likely find this root in Mexican markets.
There are two types of cassava: sweet and bitter. Although bitter cassava is hardier, it has a high cyanide content. Luckily, most of the cassava available in the United States is the sweet type.
Here’s my recipe for yuca (not yucca!) fries. It makes about 6 servings.
- 3 pounds fresh yuca (cassava) roots
- 2 to 3 cups canola or other mild-tasting cooking oil
- Salt, to taste
- Condiments, such as salsa, mayonnaise, or ketchup, optional
- Cut the ends off the yuca roots, and then trim the remaining tubers into 4-inch lengths.
Make a shallow lengthwise cut through the skin on each piece of yuca. Work your thumbs underneath the skin on one side of the cut, and peel off the skin by working your thumbs around and down the length of the root. Another option is to stand the roots on end and slice off the skin as you would with a pineapple. Discard all roots that have brown streaks, which indicate the root is overripe. Only use flesh that’s completely unblemished and white. If the root has only a few blemishes, you can opt to remove them and proceed to cook normally.
In a large stockpot, bring to boil plenty of salted water. Add the yuca pieces to the boiling water. Cook for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until fork-tender. Drain and allow to cool.
Cut the yuca pieces in half lengthwise, and remove the inner root. Then, cut the inner root into french-fry-sized sticks. Think steak fries, not shoestring.
In a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, pour in 1/2 inch or more of cooking oil. Heat the oil until hot but not smoking. Fry the yuca fries in batches, turning once, until golden-brown. Remove with a slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels.
You can also cook yuca fries in an air fryer. Toss them with oil and fry as you would french-fried potatoes. Yet another option is oven-crisped yuca fries. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit, and bake the fries for 20 to 25 minutes, or until slightly brown, turning twice.
Salt the yuca fries to taste, and serve with optional condiments. Pair them with anything you’d also serve with french-fried potatoes, such as hamburgers or steak.
Photo by Sarah Miller
Free Bird Repellent
Last spring, I planted fruit trees with five different varieties grafted onto each rootstock. My new apple tree is close to the bird feeders, which get heavy traffic, and I was worried a bird would land on a delicate twig and break it off — potentially ruining the sole twig producing that cultivar!
So, to discourage the birds, I wrapped the tree trunk with a shiny spiral decoration from a birthday party. No bird has landed on the tree, and the streamer’s spiral design meant it wrapped easily around the tree. The streamer has stayed secure without the use of any ties. Here’s hoping for delicious apples in a few years!
Charlotte, North Carolina
Photo by Marsha Rogers
Our garden always seems to produce a surplus of tomatoes. When I’ve canned enough of them, I simply wash and core the extra fruits, put them in gallon-sized freezer bags, and freeze them. The entire process is easy, and my husband loves to help out during a busy canning season. Later, in winter, the frozen tomatoes can be used in soup and spaghetti sauce. I simply hold the frozen tomatoes under hot running water, and the peels slip right off.
I also treat my chickens with excess tomatoes. They eat the fruit peelings and all in a matter of minutes. Nothing goes to waste!
Photo by Valerie Boese
Basil is an aromatic herb that contributes a superb taste to Italian dishes. It’s a chef’s delight, and it’s easy to grow.
Plant basil after danger of frost in a sunny location in a garden or flower bed with well-drained soil. You can choose from numerous cultivars. For a unique taste, try lemon basil; it’s delightful on grilled fish. Spicy globe basil makes a zesty meat rub.
My favorite is Genovese basil, which is terrific in pesto. Genovese produces an abundant amount of large, tender leaves. When it flowers, I prune it back several inches to encourage new growth. In fall, I transplant a few plants indoors to enjoy fresh basil through winter. The herb grows well indoors near a sunny window. You can also dehydrate basil for use year-round, and keep it in a sealed jar.
Here’s my family’s favorite basil recipe.
Slice ripe tomatoes and lay them out on a plate. Top with freshly snipped strips of basil. Salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle olive oil on top, and add a few splashes of red wine vinegar. Sprinkle with shredded Parmesan cheese. Serve with Parmesan cheese crackers.
Make the crackers by spreading shredded Parmesan cheese in a single layer on a plate. Microwave 1 to 3 minutes until the cheese is crisp, and break it into cracker-sized pieces before serving.
Photo by Dan Weston
Photo by Dan Weston
Photo by Dan Weston
These Pontoons Are a Boon
I built these pontoon frames using pine 2x2s. They’re 10 inches wide; the tops are 8 feet and the bottoms are 6 feet. I skinned the frames with thin wood paneling that I coated with epoxy resin. I filled the pontoons with foam, put the top paneling on, and painted them white. I also added a green garden hose around the top edge as a bumper. I added aluminum angle iron, and attached the pontoons to the boat with U-bolts through the top rail into the angle iron.
The boat is now very stable in the water, which I appreciate, because I’m 66 years old.
Photo by Amy Perez
Casting Her Net(ting) Wide
Every year, it felt like a game between me and the birds to see who’d get to the ripe blueberries first. Bird netting works but can be costly, and for me, it’s difficult to reuse year after year without ripping it.
One day, while pulling onions from the pantry, I realized that produce bags are almost identical to bird netting. I decided to save all the produce bags from onions, lemons, oranges, and more, and wrap them around the tomato cages I place over my blueberry bushes. I secured them all over with twine. It’s not the prettiest fix, but it serves its purpose and is essentially free. No more guessing who will be the early bird that gets the blueberry!
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